The prospect of the state of Alaska generating more revenue during these budget-bewildering times is a warming thought to Alaskans. But residents must be careful when discussions about “revenue” finally do begin, because we’ve noticed lately that the words “revenue” and “taxes” mean the same thing to many lawmakers and officials.
For the state, increasing existing taxes and implementing new ones is revenue, just not the type Alaskans are thinking of. What residents are wanting to hear are big ideas; ones that draw new industry to Alaska, grow the industries we already have, or which lead to new resource development and the creation of jobs.
Many argue that’s what Medicaid expansion will do for Alaska after $1.1 billion in “new revenue” is added to state coffers — if the program is expanded. Yes, Medicaid dollars fit the definition of “revenue” in technical terms, but expanding state government through federal dollars isn’t the kind of long-term sustainability Alaska needs if we’re to ever ween ourselves from North Slope oil.
Many lawmakers in influential positions have said state spending needs to be curtailed first before talking about growing revenue. That could be a while at the pace we’re going.
Funding from transportation to education has been on the butcher’s block since the legislative session began, and despite carving out healthy chunks from every departmental operating budget, Alaska will still be about $3 billion in the red when the next legislative session begins. We can’t wait until another billion dollars or so is cut before deciding how to grow revenue; the state budget can’t sustain itself off of fishing, mining and tourism alone. We need a new billion-dollar idea, and we need it now.
A liquified natural gasline is perhaps the best replacement for dwindling oil prices, and it’s the sort of big idea we need right now. But any new income from that is years away, and that’s if progress continues uninterrupted. Sadly, the Capital Budget Reserve could be wiped out and a state income tax implemented before ever collecting a penny on a liquified natural gasline.
Gov. Bill Walker has said repeatedly that Alaska doesn’t have a spending problem, it has a revenue problem. We agree, for the most part, though the state’s spending did balloon to unsustainable levels thanks to years of high oil prices and the naivete they would never again fall.
It’s too late in this session to talk revenue, regardless of various parties’ interpretation of what that means. But next year, when lawmakers again are called to Juneau to handle the state’s business, it will be well past time to define what “revenue” means for the state and its citizens — and to bring new, fresh ideas to the table. Those talks should have happened this session, and we can’t afford to let another pass.
Alaska doesn’t have enough revenue to wait until 2017.
— Juneau Empire, April 26